The Egyptian obelisk that rises dimly in the background of the picture, and whose austere antiquity contrasts poetically with the living bustle, uproar, and enjoyment of the principal scene, shows that it is a Roman carnival that the artist represents. With the exception of the obelisk, however, and some difference in the architecture of the houses, the engraving equally illustrates the carnival of Naples, or Milan, or Venice, or any other of the large Italian cities.
The crowd and confusion, the masquerade characters, their action and grouping, are common to all Italian carnivals on their good days; and as these saturnalia are limited, at Rome, to eight days, every carnival-day there may be considered a good one.
In the rest of Italy, where carnival continues from the feast of the Epiphany to the beginning of Lent, lasting five or six weeks, only the Thursdays and Sundays are observed for out-of-door displays; and these days are either not well observed at the beginning, or become languid at the close.
Within doors, indeed, particularly at Naples a few years ago, carnival used to be kept up with spirit during all its long legitimate period : there being, every night, private masquerades, or masquerades at the opera-house, balls and suppers, and all kinds of feastings and mummeries in uninterrupted succession— and very hard work it was to go through them all!
As soon as this riot of pleasure was over, the doctors, with their gold-headed canes, were seen more constantly abroad, and walking much faster than usual. They had always plenty of work on their hands, being as busy after it as milliners and tailors, cooks and confectioners, fiddlers, and dancing-masters, had been during carnival.
Even in a physical sense, the abstinence and quiet of Lent were indispensable : and during that sober season, when there were no feasting and dancing, and the opera, on the nights in which it was allowed to open, closed at the sober hour of eleven, without any ballet, people had time to recover themselves, although there annually occurred a few unlucky cases where the long revelling had sown the seeds of consumption or some other incurable disease. But this was carnival indoors. Let us return to our engraving and the streets of Rome.
In the afternoon, about three o’clock, the Corso begins gradually to fill with people —some masked, and some in their usual holyday-dresses—some on foot and some in hired carriages. About an hour later, the equipages of the nobility and gentry swell the crowd; and the open balconies and windows of every house in that long street are crammed full of company, who, for the most part, are not mere spectators, but actors in the ever-varying farce.
The carriages and the horses are, for the most part, decked out in a very fine or a very capricious manner , and the anomalies represented in the print, where a coachman, dressed as a Spanish cavalier of the olden times, is driving an old Tabellone or notary, with a huge wine-flask (extended toward a punch on stilts), and a Roman doctor, with ” spectacles on nose,” while a small-grown punch climbs up the side steps, and a full-grown punchinello, with a squeaking trumpet to his lips, and a sturdy, turbaned Moor, with a banner in his hand, act as footmen—are such amusing contrasts as continually occur, and give the best parts of the drollery to the scene.
As these carriages pass through the crowd, at a slow stately pace, those within them address or gesticulate to their friends at the balconies of the houses—or in other carriages—or in the street on foot —and generally pelt them with sugarplums. This fire is returned by the more stationary actors: and, if you look to the left of the picture, you will see a gentleman and a lady, with uplifted hands, full of sugar-plums, taking aim ; and in another balcony, to the right, two gentlemen pelting with much vigor.
The greatest part of the fun, after the hodge-podge of costume, lies in this sugar-plum warfare; for what with the noise of French horns and drums, cow-horns and guitars, fifes, fiddles, tambourines, and penny trumpets, and the din of thousands of voices—the masked all squeaking in a conventional carnival falsetto, and the unmasked roaring at the top of their lungs—no delicate passages of wit can be well heard. It is a point of gallantry, when ladies are fired at, to mix choice bon-bons and sweetmeats, wrapped up in pretty bits of paper, with nice poesies between, about ” core” and “atnore;” and when people do not mind the expense, they make use only of good eatable sugar-plums with the kernels of sweet almonds and caraway-seeds inside. Wherever these are most scattered there do the little boys and ragamuffins most abound; for the Italians generally have a very sweet tooth, and these poor fellows will run the most imminent risk to fill their stomachs and pockets with confetti da signore*
In the course of their carnival operations a broken head or rib, a crushed hand or foot, sometimes occur; but, from their wonderful dexterity, casualties are not numerous. The worst of this sugar-plum fight (and a pretty general evil it is) is, that the poorer or more parsimonious of the revellers, instead of using good plums that cost money, employ villainous hard make-believes, composed of flour and plaster-of-Paris, which hurt, where they hit, almost like stones. This warfare at Rome, however, was spiritless, compared with the carnival campaigns at Naples in our time. The Neapolitans are a magnanimous people in regard to sugarplums; and then the population is triple that of Rome, with gentry of wealth and substance. There seems to be, however, a gradual decline in the spirit of carnivals, which will probably go out altogether, and be forgotten of men.
Source: The New pictorial & illustrated family magazine, 1846